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Interview with Rafael Nadal; Venus Williams Talks Tennis, Fashion; Sloane Stephens Looking to Make her Mark in the Tennis World

Aired August 16, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET


PAT CASH, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: On this month's edition of OPEN COURT, it's a tale of two cities. New York and Mallorca. Here's what's ahead. Exclusive excursion to the island home of Rafa Nadal. And with the U.S. Open approaching quicker than an Andy Roddick serve, Venus Williams talks fashion and forehand. Plus, who will carry the tennis torch if the Williams sisters ever hang up their rackets? The smart money is on this lady, Sloane Stephens.

Rafa Nadal's year has had more ups and downs than a Coney Island roller coaster. Since winning the French Open, things haven't gone his way. And now due to injury, he's going to miss the U.S. Open for the first time in his career. But through good times and bad times, there's one place Rafa feels at home, and OPEN COURT's Pedro Pinto joined him there for this OPEN COURT exclusive.


PEDRO PINTO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was the best of times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Rafa Nadal is looking unstoppable. He lost one match here for his entire career.

RAFAEL NADAL, TENNIS PLAYER: The trophy (ph) with me today, I (inaudible) in my opinion. And for more this (ph) (inaudible).

PINTO: Just five weeks later, the worst of times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: CNN confirmed that the London Olympics will be without one of its biggest star names after Rafael Nadal withdrew from the games.

PINTO: I was preparing for my first trip to Manacor, to interview Rafael Nadal in his home town, when the announcement hit the airwaves. Not only had the defending gold medallist withdrawn from the London Olympics, he would miss out on the singular honor of carrying the flag for Spain during the opening ceremony. He was still dealing with the disappointment when I met up with him a couple of days later inside his gym in Manacor.

(on camera): When did you realize you just weren't going to be able to compete at the Olympics?

NADAL: It was one of the tougher decisions that I take in my career, because always play Olympics was a big goal for me, was a big emotions always, because it's only one time every four years. Because it's the most important event in the world of sport. And I was very excited to represent my country.

PINTO: This is a low point, no doubt, but you've had, you've had many high points this season. The clay court season was fantastic. The victory over your rival, Novak Djokovic, at the French Open, was historic, a record seventh title.

NADAL: Last month was a high month for me because my name, being (inaudible) after all I'm nervous. I had a lot of problems, but since the beginning of the season in Australia and the Roland Garros, I think I had a great season, one of my best seasons. The level of playing was very high.

PINTO: This is Manacor, a small industrial town on the island of Mallorca. Rafa grew up here, and returns every chance he gets.

NADAL: I have everything here. I have all my friends since school. I have all family. My relationship with my friends and my family was great, and very close, so that's (inaudible) for me. I just enjoy when I come back here and see the people that I love. And I feel confident (inaudible).

PINTO: The road to Rafa's success begins here at the Manacor Tennis Club. This is where his uncle, Toni Nadal, has taught him the game and has been his coach ever since.

TONI NADAL, COACH (through translator): From the moment a training session started, every point was very important. So he became used to giving 100 percent every time. I was a very demanding coach when he was a child. I got him into the habit of always giving 100 percent. I think that's helped him to maintain the same level.

PINTO: I accompanied Rafa to a photo shoot where I caught up with Carlos Moya, who was the first Spanish player ever to become world number one. Both of them grew up on the island and had been friends for 15 years.

CARLOS MOYA, FORMER WORLD NUMBER ONE: I met him when he was 11. I hit like 20 minutes with him, I was 21, and you see that he's good, but I didn't know how the 11-year-old kids are hitting those days. And I saw that, I realized that he was very good, but I could never say that he was going to win 11 Slams and be No. 1 in the world for so long.

PINTO: And as many Slams as he wins, you can always say, you know what, Rafa, I was the first No. 1, I was the first Spanish No. 1. So you'll always be able to put him down to his level, I guess, if he gets a little too important.

MOYA: That's probably the only thing that he cannot take away from me.

PINTO: I know on the courts, you are a gladiator. Off the courts, I've known you for a while and you're quite shy. Are you used to having the attention around you now? Is it something that you feel comfortable?

NADAL: You know, I am shy. I'm a little bit (ph) shy, now less than three years ago for sure, but that's something that I'm (inaudible), but it's something that happens very often for me. I think I've learned a lot the last couple of years, and I'm able to relax a little bit more when I am with people, to enjoy a little bit more of the moments than a few years ago.

PINTO: How do you like the disconnect? I know you like to golf. We shared that experience in Toronto a couple of years ago. You shared (ph) the golf, I didn't. How do you disconnect when you're here?

NADAL: I'm with family. I'm with the family, with the friends. Usually when I go to Manacor, I really don't have attention on me. I am one more really normal guy, and that's very important to me.

PINTO: Where do you get that extra strength to fight more and to do it on clay where the points are longer and the sets are longer? Where do you get it from?

NADAL: Probably a little bit from the education when I was a kid. And probably my uncle put a lot of fight into me.

PINTO: Pushing you harder and harder?

NADAL: Yes. But I don't know. I really love the sport. I love the competition. I really enjoy it when you are there, when you are fighting, when you - the dramatic situations. I really learn to enjoy these moments, and that's why sometimes I'm able to fight until the last ball, because I really enjoy when the situations become dramatic.

PINTO: Rafa, I know it's been a couple of tough days for you. Thanks so much for taking the time, seriously.

NADAL: Thank you very much.


CASH: We'll return to Mallorca later in the show to hear how Rafa is using his influence as a role model for young people. Still to come, Sloane Stephens grew up with posters of Venus Williams on her wall, and now she's competing with her. OPEN COURT talks to both players after the break.


CASH: Welcome back to OPEN COURT. Venus and Serena Williams returned from the London Olympics to the U.S. clutching their gold medals, but Venus had just enough time to indulge in her passion for fashion on the way to Flushing Meadows.


CASH: Venus Williams is clearly prepared to take fashion risks both on the court and off.

VENUS WILLIAMS, PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: I've had some favorite things, and I've had some things like why did I do that? That's fashion, though, and it wouldn't be fashion if sometimes you didn't, you know, push the envelope. The Alice in Wonderland dress was definitely - it was out of this world, but it was fun and served its purpose.

CASH: The seven-time Grand Slam champion says the experiments are now over, and she's decided to relaunch her fashion line, Eleven. She invited OPEN COURT to the Hamptons for a special preview at the tennis garden party.

WILLIAMS: I'm in charge of the whole creative process, so nothing goes ahead unless, you know, I approved it. I went to school for fashion design. It took me eight years to get out of there.

CASH: She grew up in Los Angeles, in the tough suburb of Compton, which provided inspiration for her collection.

WILLIAMS: My address was 1117, so I'll never forget that, 1117 East Stockton Street. Wow. I've come a long way since then, but I'll never forget my roots.

CASH: It was during that time in Compton that Venus and her younger sister Serena were introduced to tennis by their father, Richard.

The sisters started winning Grand Slams at a young age, and they'd never looked back. For the past year, Venus has been battling chronic fatigue syndrome and struggled to qualify for the Olympic Games in London.

WILLIAMS: I had to get to the Olympics. I had to defend our doubles medal. That was so important to me, to play with Serena. I would have been so heartbroken if I would have been at home watching. When I win, I am all usually smiles and laugher, but I would say that was the most emotional moment for me.

CASH: Venus hopes to build on her Olympic success later this month at the U.S. Open.

WILLIAMS: The Olympics really build my confidence. I played I think some of my best tennis of the year, at the top of my game again. So that's why I can't wait to play the Open.

CASH: One thing Venus doesn't have to worry about is being caught without the right dress to wear.

WILLIAMS: I am wearing the U.S. Open dress, which also has the low (ph) top, but this is our new print, floral, I've always, always, always wanted to do floral. For me, I take it really, really seriously, so this is really a peak into the collection and what Eleven is about.


CASH: The Williams sisters have carried the torch for so long, it's been easy to overlook the next generation of U.S. players. And as Mark McKay reports for OPEN COURT, there's a new star on the rise. May I present Sloane Stephens.


JAMES BLAKE, FORMER TOP 10 PLAYER: She seems fearless at a young age.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sloane is a phenomenal athlete.

JEFF NEWMAN, VICE PRESIDENT, LAGARDERE TENNIS EVENTS: Certain players have that it factor, and they talk about that in sports, and she has it. She really resonates among the fans.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think she has like a lot of top spin.

MARK MCKAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sloane Stephens is making a name for herself in the tennis world. The 19-year-old with the athletic build and big smile is the youngest player in the top 50. She's not afraid to tell you about her approach to the game.

SLOANE STEPHENS, PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: It's going to be hectic out there, but I think I am, you know, it's just going to be grinding and get every ball back, you know, going after every ball. Just -- if I'm losing, you're going to be tired, I'm going to be tired, and it's just going to be a battle.

MCKAY: The teenager from Florida has already shown she can battle at the Grand Slam level. We caught up with Stephens at the City Open Washington, where she was working on her hard court game. Her mother Sybil travels with her when she can.

SYBIL SMITH, MOTHER: She really sort of stepped into tennis as Sloane Stephens and started playing her game the way that she wanted to play, and for our family, it was much easier to take a step back and just let her do what she loves to do. So her brother and I just cheer her on and try to keep her normal, because you know, she's just Sloane to us.

MCKAY: You don't have to look too far to see where Stephens gets her athletic abilities.

STEPHENS: I mean, my mom was a great swimmer, and my dad was a great football player. And it's safe to say that I got some really good athletic genes, which I'm so grateful for. And just, you know, want to make them proud.

MCKAY: Tragically, her dad, a pro football player for the New England Patriots, died following a car crash three years ago. Her family's support has been vital, but Sloane has already drawn inspiration from her sporting idols, the Williams sisters.

SMITH: It's funny, Sloane's first athletic heroes were Venus and Serena, before she even picked up a racket. I think she was probably 5 or 6 years old when she had posters of the girls in her bedroom, and along with other athletes and soccer players. So she really admired them before she even started the game.

MCKAY: Stephens knows that America is hungry, make that starving, for a new tennis star. She also knows the comparisons to the Williams sisters will only grow louder as she wins more matches. But for now, try not to confuse her with Venus or Serena.

STEPHENS: Yeah, like, people will be like, oh my God, are you Serena? I'm like, really, do I look like Serena? Like, come on, seriously. But you see a lot of - people would see her and think that she was there. So I would come an hour later, they are like, oh my God, Serena! I'm like, me, what? I'm like, she's what? No.

MCKAY: Stephens' first Grand Slam summer wraps up at the U.S. Open. She's looking forward to some hometown support and the opportunity to compete on the court named for Arthur Ashe.

STEPHENS: It's a home Slam. So many people and they all want you to win.


CASH: I'm about to meet four-time Grand Slam champion, U.S. Davis Cup captain and a man with one of the greatest forehands of all time, Jim Courier. I'm getting ready for our showdown after the break.


CASH: Welcome back to OPEN COURT. I'm in New York at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, and I'm about to hit with one of the legends of U.S. tennis, Jim Courier. And I think I'm going to need all these balls.

Jim had one of the biggest forehands in the world set up by a great serve. Show me some of that legendary forehand.

JIM COURIER, FORMER WORLD NO. 1: All right, let's do it.

CASH: There is the forehand. Yeah.

Tell me, what's going to happen to the U.S. Open? We've got Rafa's got a title, we've got Novak who's got a title, Roger's got a title, and Murray has got a gold medal.

COURIER: I think whoever wins the U.S. Open this year, Cash, he's going to have the claim to being the best player in the world this year. They'll all have the best year, because they'll have two of the big titles.

CASH: If you had to pick two winners at the U.S. Open, the men's and the women's, who do you think?

COURIER: OK. Women's is easy. I'll go with Serena, that's a pretty good pick. And on the men's side, gosh, I am going to go with Novak. I am going to go with Novak. And I'm always wrong, so I'm sorry, Novak.

CASH: Yeah, take a big rip there. That's the famous Courier inside out forehand. Let me try it.

COURIER: This is something to see, Cashy running around his backhand to smack a forehand. Never thought I'd live to see this day.


CASH: Courier doesn't think I can do it, but I think I can. All right, fire away. That one over there.

COURIER: A little earlier.

CASH: That's the idea.

I got one.

Well, as a Davis Cup captain now, how are you going to go about beating the Spaniards on clay?

COURIER: We're not going to beat the Spaniards. But we weren't going to beat the Swiss and we weren't going to beat the French either, so I mean, who knows. You look on paper at all of our matches this year, away, on clay, against great teams, we should be playing a relegation match now rather than the semifinals. But you know, the Bryan brothers, they've won everything, done everything, and then of course Isner has been a real threat to everyone he's played in Davis Cup. And Mardy Fish came up big for us in Switzerland with the singles and doubles win. So we've put together a true team effort.

CASH: I am going to try and get around and hit my forehand, unlike what Jim wants me to do, I'm going to try to snake into the net. See what happens.

COURIER: Approaching - approaching volley coming up.


CASH: Edit that one out.

COURIER: You can't come in on that, Cashy. Not in 2012.

CASH: And then when do you run to the net?

COURIER: You run to the net when they call game, set, match, and you shake hands.

CASH: I'm blaming you. Well, you and your peers for the demise of serve-and-volley.


COURIER: You can be.

CASH: I have to rethink my tactics. Maybe I am a dinosaur, but I've had a little fun hitting with you again, my friend.

COURIER: That was great. We're shankasauruses (ph).

CASH: Shankasauruses?


CASH: Thanks, Jim.

Jim will be in action against Andre Agassi and John McEnroe in the PowerShares series this fall. For more on this and other stories, visit our website at

I've come just a few subway stops from Flushing Meadows to the New York borough of Harlem. It's one of the poorer districts in Manhattan. For some, drinking and drugs provide the means to shut out the pain of poverty. In the face of such challenges, sports such as tennis are inspiring young people to break the cycle of despair. The Harlem junior tennis and education programs celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, and one of its success stories is American star and Davis Cup champion James Blake.


BLAKE: I didn't realize this at the time but how much of an outlet it gives you. I didn't want to do anything else. I didn't want to go out and cause trouble on the streets, especially in Fort Mayer (ph), in Harlem, where you can get into plenty of trouble. And instead of going out and doing something like that, they are in there playing tennis and they got something to look forward to.


CASH: From Manhattan to Mallorca, Rafa Nadal is bringing a message to young people about the dangers of excessive drinking. He's the ambassador of a campaign called Champions Drink Responsibly. As he tells Pedro Pinto, it's a cause close to his heart.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it came to actually finding a champion who was just perfect for looking after your friends, Rafa just turned out to be a great person.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Champions drink responsibly.

PINTO: Rafa's message to his fans is simple.

NADAL: I like to enjoy with friends, I like to go out for a time, but it's always important to know where is the line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just like the base line in tennis, right? Isn't it?

NADAL: A little bit more important, this one.

PINTO: He's taken his pitch from New York to Shanghai, from the Australian city of Melbourne to the island of Mallorca. Feeling relaxed on a clay court near his home town, Nadal told me about his involvement with the cause.

NADAL: I think it is a very important campaign. Very socially important campaign, especially for the young people because everybody goes out, everybody enjoys the party with friends. I (inaudible) why I really believe in this.

PINTO: Do you see yourself as a role model?

NADAL: I always try to do the things that I think are right. I am not trying to be a model, I try to be myself.

PINTO: Campaign organizers say Rafa signed up with the project after they flew to Mallorca to make a personal presentation to his team.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think he takes his calls personally, because he cares about people, he cares about his fans. He's got over 11.5 million fans (inaudible), and he feels this personal connection.

PINTO: During my visit to the island, I noticed that the often shy man was out in front, entertaining his fans at this campaign event.

Thank you. Just one - one last one, Rafa? I am going to give you full control of this. All right? No mercy on Carlos. So which button do I press? This one? I wasn't expecting that, all right. Can I put more spin on it or no? I'll try to trick him.

Rafa is taking over. There - it's in. OK. Ace, that was an ace. I think when in doubt, you let Rafa take over, work the angles, and we got an ace there at the end, so job done.


CASH: That's all we have time for this month's show. Next month, we go to Germany and meet both the new wave of players and the legends that inspired them. Boris Becker, Michael Stich and Steffi Graf. Until then, it's goodbye from New York.